Here's How Burning Man Attendees Documented the Muddy Chaos on TikTok
Responses to the popular festival's flooding and subsequent disaster were incredibly varied.
As recounted in numerous news stories, the usual schedule at Burning Man was interrupted over the weekend when flooding at the site, which is located in the middle of the Black Rock Desert, shut down programming and made it nearly impossible to leave.
The week before, flooding from Tropical Storm Hilary caused flooding of the site, and organizers prevented people from arriving at the event—which started on August 27—early. But the event went on as planned, and more flooding happened over Labor Day weekend. This time, it upended the festival's programming and caused many people to attempt to flee. Unfortunately, possible exits were impassable via car or truck.
Stories emerged of people hiking out six miles until they reached vehicles that could pick them up, and of people banding together to ride out the conditions. A fair amount of chaos emerged, and much of it was posted to TikTok in near-real time for the rest of the watching world.
A lot of the TikToks were quickly mocked. The general assumption about Burning Man attendees is that they are mostly Silicon Valley startup guys, influencers wearing bejeweled Mad Max: Fury Road outfits, people who love Diplo, and Diplo himself. It's not the most sympathetic assemblage of people—and the content they posted didn’t encourage people to expand their empathy.
Diplo hiking out barefoot at first seems like a rugged tale of survival—but then you note the private airplanes on the tarmac behind him, and that he's headed towards his own private jet. My first and most honest response was: "Oh, spare me." And in the comment section, someone else points out: "What did you do with all the stuff you brought with you.. did you leave it there.. guess leave no trace is different for the rich???"
Salah Brooks, who is an internet personality, posted a TikTok video which has gotten over three million views. In it, she says: "We are all just walking from party to party—and yes someone did die while they were out here, this is a natural disaster. People are terrified."
It is important to note here that the death that Brooks casually referred to reportedly did occur "during" but not "because of" the extreme rain during the festival, according to local law enforcement. CBS News reports that there is an active investigation into the man's death. He was later identified as 32-year-old Leon Reece, according to SF Gate.
Brooks continued point out that people are running out of food and water, that the National Guard is on the way (it wasn't), but that social media is making it look "way worse than it is."
And while she's technically right—there were unfounded rumors circulating on social media about mysterious illnesses and even some flesh-eating infections—her overall nonchalance resulted in a fair amount of backlash in the comments.
"This really makes me wish the best for literally everyone experiencing hardship except for the people at burning man," one commenter wrote.
Another said: "Rain is not a natural disaster. You created a disaster by going out there."
That last point is one that seems to resonate not only with anonymous commenters, but with officials who were tasked with responding to the crisis.
"This year is a little different in that there are numerous vehicles strewn all throughout the playa for several miles," Perishing County Sheriff Jerry Allen told the New York Times. "Some participants were unwilling to wait or use the beaten path to attempt to leave the desert, and have had to abandon their vehicles and personal property wherever their vehicle came to rest."
With the rush to leave the desert and flooding behind, people left behind tons of trash and debris in a very isolated area in Nevada's Black Rock Desert. This is a particularly sinister fact when considering some of the 10 principles of the festival, including “leave no trace." "Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them," the Burning Man website states.
Even some Burning Man attendees acknowledged the disconnect.
"We need to reimagine this gathering, because it is no longer sustainable," artist and activist Favianna Rodriguez explained in a video shared to Instagram. "... You could feel that the land needs a break."
Rodriguez explained that her and her camp, which prioritized attendees who are people of color, didn't attend Burning Man this year—after nine years of taking part—due to these environmental and sustainability concerns. It is something that people from the Black Rock Desert area have also expressed concern about—especially the garbage, which is only anticipated to get worse this year.
With some of this year's famous attendees including Neal Katyal, the guy who successfully defended Nestle's use of exploitative labor to the Supreme Court; Diplo; Elon Musk's brother Kimbal Musk; and Google cofounder Sergey Brin, it adds an additional dimension to the apathy the general public has towards the “burners,” as festivalgoers are called. This seems to be a largely preventable and predicted crisis—and a lot of the attendees getting the most coverage are of a tax bracket that will protect them from the ever-worsening climate crisis in the future. Diplo walking his muddy feet onto that private jet to escape the floods feels like a vicious metaphor for the larger issues at play.
As a lot of the social media posts from burners on the ground show, this year’s Burning Man fiasco felt more like disasterism cosplay for many attendees, not a natural disaster.